So last week I said that we took a quick weekend trip up to Huntsville, Alabama to check out this cave I found on the internet.
We’ve never been caving before — we haven’t even done much hiking as a couple — so I was a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Imagining a cave, I tend to think of mazes of dark, narrow, claustrophobic tunnels — headlamps, ropes, getting lost, dying. You know, that kind of thing.
Stephen’s Gap smashes all those ideas to pieces. It is like an underground cathedral.
What’s encouraging about Stephen’s Gap is that you don’t need any special knowledge or gear. An experienced spelunker can rappel into the cave through one entrance where a waterfall plummets straight down. . .
But for the rest of us, there’s a second entrance that you can just walk right down into.
Now, here is the most important thing you need to know about Stephen’s Gap if you visit:
Request a Permit
Stephen’s Gap is owned by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi) which strives to maintain and preserve caves all over the southeastern United States. The permit is actually free, and it’s really easy to apply and be approved. You just need to fill out a form on the internet and then electronically sign a waiver. — In return, they’ll give you a wealth of information about what to expect at the cave itself, where to park and find the trail leading to it, and “clean caving” procedures to protect the bat population.
What to Bring
All you really need is water, shoes with really good traction, and clothes you’re willing to get muddy.
We brought headlamps but didn’t end up using them. The two entrances to the cave are large and let in plenty of light.
It’s less than a mile to get from the road to the cave, but it’s a fairly strenuous hike and
took us longer than we expected. We went after a week of heavy rains, so the trail was pretty muddy, rugged, slippery, and narrow in parts. I was expecting slippery conditions at the cave, but the trail was probably the bigger challenge! The descent into the cave is a little steep, but not to the degree where you actually have to “climb,” and once you’re down into it, the surfaces are fairly large and flat.
Pro Tip: Use the address provided in the permit when you’re trying to find the parking area. I just searched “Stephen’s Gap” in Google Maps and it led us astray.
A Note on Safety
The SCCi keeps caves in an “untouched” state — you won’t find guard rails, stairs, pavement, railings, or any of that kind of thing. So yes, there is very real danger in visiting a cave like this. It is wet, slippery, and there are very long drops. More than one person has died there over the years. So if you visit, be smart, and be safe!